Chemical abrasion is a technique that combines thermal annealing and partial dissolution in hydrofluoric acid (HF) to selectively remove radiation-damaged portions of zircon crystals prior to U-Pb isotopic analysis, and it is applied ubiquitously to zircon prior to U-Pb isotope dilution thermal ionization mass spectrometry (ID-TIMS). The mechanics of zircon dissolution in HF and the impact of different leaching conditions on the zircon structure, however, are poorly resolved. We present a microstructural investigation that integrates microscale X-ray computed tomography (μCT), scanning electron microscopy, and Raman spectroscopy to evaluate zircon dissolution in HF. We show that μCT is an effective tool for imaging metamictization and complex dissolution networks in three dimensions. Acid frequently reaches crystal interiors via fractures spatially associated with radiation damage zoning and inclusions to dissolve soluble high-U zones, some inclusions, and material around fractures, leaving behind a more crystalline zircon residue. Other acid paths to crystal cores include the dissolution of surface-reaching inclusions and the percolation of acid across zones with high defect densities. In highly crystalline samples dissolution is crystallographically controlled with dissolution proceeding almost exclusively along the c axis. Increasing the leaching temperature from 180 to 210°C results in deeper etching textures, wider acid paths, more complex internal dissolution networks, and greater volume losses. How a grain dissolves strongly depends on its initial radiation damage content and defect distribution as well as the size and position of inclusions. As such, the effectiveness of any chemical abrasion protocol for ID-TIMS U-Pb geochronology is likely sample-dependent. We also briefly discuss the implications of our findings for deep-time (U-Th)/He thermochronology.
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